The impact of cheap speech on American democracy

By | May 11, 2022

Jeff Kosseff writes:

In 1995, Eugene Volokh published a law review article in which he predicted that the rapidly growing internet would “dramatically reduce the costs of distributing speech” and that “the new media order that these technologies will bring will be much more democratic and diverse than the environment we see now.” The concept, which Volokh dubbed “cheap speech,” would mean that “far more speakers—rich and poor, popular and not, banal and avant garde—will be able to make their work available to all.”

To say that Volokh’s article was prophetic would be an understatement. More than a quarter-century later, the cheap speech that Volokh predicted has upended commerce, art, politics, news and community. Many volumes can and should be written about the effects of the rapid evolution of cheap speech on discrete areas of American life.

Fortunately, Rick Hasen has done just that. In “Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons Our Politics—and How to Cure It,” Hasen takes on the lofty task of examining the impact of cheap speech on American elections, politics and democracy. Hasen has written an extraordinary, thorough and fair examination of the impact of misinformation on democracy. He examines the costs and benefits of cheap speech and presents carefully crafted proposals that attempt to address the harms without straying from core First Amendment values or from falling into a moral panic about misinformation.

Hasen expands on Volokh’s concept of “cheap speech,” defining it as “speech that is both inexpensive to produce and often of markedly low social value.” Hasen devotes the first part of the book to an even-handed evaluation of the impact of cheap speech on American democracy. Hasen does not villainize the internet as the source of all that is evil about modern politics. “There is no doubt that the rise of the Internet has had many free speech benefits,” Hasen writes. “We worry much less about media consolidation and scarcity of information than we did when there were just three main broadcast television networks and a handful of local newspapers in each area.”

Of course, the discussion of the internet’s benefits to democracy is followed by a very long “but.” Hasen documents many information harms that have accompanied the digital revolution: contraction of local journalism, political operations disguised as news sources, reduction in public trust in institutional media and elections, deep fakes, Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign, and of course the lies that led to the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. [Continue reading…]

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